Earlier this year, in a trial that the whole world watched, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of George Floyd’s murder, causing the topic of justice to once again become a contentious issue for many people around the globe. This question of what justice is and how it might be applied has plagued philosophers and laypeople alike for millennia. From the time of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates to the present day, human beings have provided competing ideas of what the concept of justice means, or what the principles of justice should be. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the definition of justice is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments”. To put it more simply, justice—as many understand it—is the application of fair and impartial treatment to all.
The guilty verdict in the Chauvin case has led many to declare that justice had been served in a case that has become emblematic of racial tensions all around the world. While many of the problems that lead to George Floyd’s tragic death remain, the trial verdict has been cited as a shift in cultural perspective, that may lead to a more just society for those who have often been unfairly profiled or discriminated against. Prominent Christian activists have declared the verdict as an example of justice— with John Boston II, an Adventist pastor and denominational leader, referencing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote stating “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. Similarly, Claudia Allen, a writer and international speaker on matters of faith, culture and justice stated, “Today, George Floyd received justice and our nation embarked on the road towards accountability”.
In contrast, many more have opposed this idea, noting that it is not “justice” as the unjust murder cannot be undone—and many similar injustices continue to happen. In the week surrounding the day that Chauvin’s guilty verdict was handed down, a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a police officer in Ohio and footage of 13-year-old Adam Toledo being shot after complying with an officer’s request to put his hands up was released. Until these incidents no longer occur, and all are truly treated equally under the law, they argue, there can be no justice.
This brings us back to the question of what constitutes justice. Most perspectives on what justice is can be divided into a few prominent schools of thought: retributive justice, procedural justice and restorative justice. These differing ideas of what justice is are an important part of the complications we have when attempting to discuss this matter—it’s very possible to have an argument over the meaning of justice because you believe in a different form of justice to those that you are arguing with. It’s also possible even to have a theory of justice that falls outside this definition (such as corrective justice or distributive justice), but these are the types of justice most relevant to the commonly occurring conversations on the topic—and are what I will focus on. As a result, defining these types of justice may help us further understand what justice in the present day may look like.
Types of Justice
The first type of justice, retributive justice, is one that should be familiar for most people, as it forms the basis of most criminal legal systems around the world. This is a type of justice which believes that an action should be responded to in kind. Depending on the severity of your crime and the rule of law in the context of the offence, the severity of punishment will change. A shoplifter may be forced to pay a fine or publicly apologise, but a serial killer will face life in prison—or even death in some countries around the world.
This is also the type of justice that forms the backbone of many famous stories. From French classic The Count of Monte Cristo, to modern day anti-heroes like John Wick and Marvel’s The Punisher and even one of this year’s Oscars winners, Promising Young Woman, the idea of revenge as a form of retributive justice has a long history in the types of stories we tell each other. The ways in which we are encouraged to root for these heroes is also representative of the ways culture often endorses this form of justice. While revenge is a distinct phenomenon from retributive justice, the lines are often blurred in our society.
Retributive justice is also present in many religions. It appears in almost all the Abrahamic religions including parts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. When Jesus speaks about the laws at the time proclaiming, “an eye for an eye”, this is what He is referring to. In a more abstract sense, the concept of karma, present in many eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sihkism, seems to draw on similar ideas of justice—where the consequences of one’s actions inform what happens to them in future.
This is what many are referring to when they speak of justice being served in the Chauvin trial. Chauvin is “getting what he deserved”. As a result of his abhorrent actions, which needlessly took the life of an innocent man, Chauvin himself faces the possibility of life in prison, and will likely spend at least a decade behind bars. This is justice for his actions—if one prescribes to the ideas of retributive justice.
The second form of justice is procedural justice. Also sharing much in common with the idea of justice as fairness created by John Rawls, this refers to fairness (or justice) in the processes that are used to determine outcomes for society on a broader level. Put more simply, justice occurs here when everybody has an equality of opportunity and all are given the same basic human rights and dignities. This form of justice, often being used when discussing the ways the law or rules, affect us. An example of this working would be a healthcare system equally accessible to all members of a nation, regardless of social status, race, specific entitlements or any number of factors. This is also the type of justice that is referenced in Martin Luther King Jr’s quote about the “arc of the moral universe”, which Boston refers to.
This is also likely the form of justice many believe in when they claim that the Chauvin verdict is not justice. While they acknowledge that sentencing Chauvin shows the law is holding him accountable, it is not justice, according to them, because the processes continue to be unjust. George Floyd’s death is, as mentioned previously, one example of the ways in which the system affects different demographics differently. Specific numbers vary, but research shows that (when taking percentage of the population into account), black people in the US are between three to six times more likely to be killed by police than white people—as well as being more likely to receive a harsher punishment for a crime when compared to a white person who committed an identical crime. And lest we think this is an exclusively US problem, data from the Redfern Legal Centre (Sydney, Australia) shows that 12 per cent of all strip searches in New South Wales target Aboriginal Australians, even though only four percent of the state’s population are part of this group. They are also imprisoned at far higher rates than the rest of the population, with over a quarter of the prison population being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, despite making up only two per cent of the population.
These statistics highlight a lack of impartiality in the criminal justice systems, which do not treat all equally but unfairly discriminate against specific groups. As a result, no matter what the outcome of the Chauvin trial, it cannot be justice as George Floyd’s killing was an unjust act perpetrated by a system that continues to propagate injustice. Justice in this sense becomes an ongoing effort to reform things until everybody is treated equally. This is also the core goal of many who identify with the banner of “social justice”—they aim to reform the systems in society to treat everybody justly. This task may be extremely difficult.
This brings us to the final form of justice: restorative justice. Restorative justice focuses on repairing the relationship that was damaged by an action. Reparations are paid to the victim by the offender based on their terms and reconciling the relationship so that a similar transgression will not happen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been little talk of restorative justice in the case of George Floyd. Floyd cannot experience any justice, so any reconciliation would have to occur through proxy. There is nothing Chauvin can do to restore his relationship with Floyd—and the wider community’s anger towards him may make reconciliation difficult here also.
Restorative justice clearly highlights the limitations of our human understanding of justice. While all three forms have limitations when enacted by humans, when applied to these issues, it is clear that injustice will always exist as long as the world remains as it is.
Everybody on earth faces punishment for a crime. This isn’t a crime against the laws of man, or of any individual country—but against the Creator of all. The Bible tells us in Genesis 3 that the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, committed a sin—a crime against God, which brought pain and suffering and death into this world. The punishment for this, which all people on earth face, is death. This is the punishment of Adam and Eve’s actions—a retributive justice for their transgressions. This judgement and the process that God uses to determine it is procedural. It does not discriminate but treats all of humanity the same: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NIV).
It is a direct result of these actions that we continue to see pain, suffering and despair. When we see injustice occurring in the world we may often find ourselves asking why it happens. The footage of the deaths of George Floyd or Adam Toledo is certainly confronting and raises many questions about the nature of pain in the world. Similarly, the discussions surrounding the Chauvin trial highlight how difficult it is to define justice in this world, let alone see it administered fairly. While the Bible tells us that this pain is the result of humanity’s actions in the past, it does not tell us to passively accept it.
We can, and should, work to create a society where others are all treated fairly and minimise suffering. In fact, this forms the basis of what Jesus said was the most important rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12, NIV). Similarly, in a vision given to the prophet Isaiah by God, His chosen people are told to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widows cause” (Isaiah 1:17, NIV). When we see injustice in the world, be that in a single instance or an entire institution, we should seek to correct it.
Justice in the end
God has instituted a plan to restore the world to how it was intended to be; free of pain, suffering and death. By sending His son Jesus to die on the cross, He has freed us from the consequences we should face for sin. His restorative justice plan is simple: accept the sacrifice Jesus made in substitution for us, and live life according to the ideals He has for us. But how do we know what these ideals are?
When speaking to His disciples, Jesus tells a story of what will happen at the second coming (found in Matthew 25:31-46). According to Him, God will divide the people of all nations into two groups. The first will receive their inheritance and dine with Him because of their actions; God tells them this, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV). When this group notes that they do not know when they did this, God responds “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:41, NIV).
The other group is chastised by God who notes that they did not help Him when in need; “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45, NIV). This group will then be sent away to face their eternal punishment—forever being separated from God and the gift of eternal life.
The message from Jesus here is clear. God calls us to be active in the world, helping those who are the victims of injustice big and small. While we know He will be the ultimate arbiter of justice, we should not be passive in our waiting for Him—instead we should do everything we can to help those who are suffering. We must recognise George Floyd’s final pleading words as the sign of an unjust system and work to help those who still suffer under it—and systems like it.
So at the end of that all, what can we say about justice? Justice, as it appears on earth, is highly contested and difficult to define. Even after explaining it, there is difficulty that comes with applying it equally and fairly to those around us. This does not mean that we should wash our hands of it, however. Through Jesus, God shows us how we can enact His justice and will here—while leaving ultimate justice to Him. In the meantime, we can do our best to model His justice to others, so that they may know Him also and their suffering may be eased.